One bright spark in the doom and gloom of 2020 was the global spotlight on mental health awareness. After years of glorifying positivity, often to the point of toxicity, it feels like we’ve turned the corner when it comes to normalising the ebbs and flows of our mental health.

It’s really okay not to be okay. Yet, why does Hollywood still get the portrayal of mental health all wrong?

Toxic Masculinity Is Not An Excuse for Poor Mental Health

Image: screenrant.com

When Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award at the 2020 Oscars for Joker, it felt like long-overdue recognition for his acting prowess. But the critical acclaim for such a controversial character is a major step back for the mental health awareness movement.

Life hasn’t blessed Arthur Fleck with an easy ride, and he’s ready to seek out revenge. Here is a loner, seething with rage at the injustices the world has doled out on him. His mental health is terrible, but rather than addressing it openly, he expresses himself through his fists. The bloodier the carnage, the better.

It’s Fight Club all over again.

The 1999 film by David Fincher that span a million fanboys spouting “the first rule of fight club is…” may have been crafted as a treatise for anti-consumerism. But that may be lost to most of the male viewers who instead walked away with the burning question of how to get Tyler Durden’s body.   

What these films represent isn’t healthy. Self-loathing manifesting as irrepressible rage is a key trait of toxic masculinity. Neither is it okay in series like 13 Reasons Why which glorifies the idea of a suicidal revenge fantasy.

The traditional norm of suppressing emotions and using violence harms men, women, and non-binaries alike. And it’s time that Hollywood shares better representations when tackling portrayals of mental health.

It’s Okay Not To Have An Antidote For Mental Illness

For all that Hollywood exaggerates, there are some films that genuinely hit the mark in good mental health representation. It’s rarely dramatic, instead a slow-focus into the minutiae of mental health.

You could argue that not much happens in Melancholia. The depressed protagonist played by Kirsten Dunst floats through her failed wedding, increasingly alienated and disengaged as she counts down impending doom. She lounges forlornly in different states through the film. Psychologists have pointed to this Lars Von Trier film as a perfect encapsulation of the truth about living with depression.

It’s a shadow that walks with you, warping time, emotions, and perspective. Some days may be worse than others, but the total sum of the experience is akin to walking around with a permanent blindfold. Not impossible to live with, but easier to get by by opening up and with some help.

Much like the quirky but troubled family in Little Miss Sunshine or the unexpected friendships in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, there is no perfect mental health. Negative emotions like depression and anxiety are a piece of baggage you can’t ever cast off. Instead, you learn to manage it by living through it and leaning on your support system, however imperfect they might be.

Image: Jason’s Movie Blog

Pixar’s Inside Out paves the way to talk about dealing with emotions. Set in an 11-year old’s troubled mind, the animated film is an allegory of mental health and highlights the importance of normalising sadness. It’s a landmark film for spotlighting how early conversations surrounding mental health need to begin.

Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness control Riley’s emotions in turns and generally try to ensure she has positive memories . But her “headquarters” begin to run askew when negative memories start multiplying. Puberty is a confusing and often scary time for burgeoning teens. 

And the grace of which Inside Out portrays the importance of processing each emotion, especially sadness, helps us hope for a better future to come in tackling mental health awareness.